Review: Ralph’s Garden Cafe
Ralph’s Garden Cafe
5 S. Federal Avenue
Mason City, IA
Dress: Casual-Business Casual
Cost: Moderate [$12-20 avg. Entree]
Tom, the Wife, and I entered Ralph’s Garden Cafe, I did not know what to expect. The photos from their Facebook fan page looked quite good, but my track record with organic restaurants has been anything but. Usually, too much attention doted upon the beginning product and not enough put on the end product placed in front of your customers. I was optimistic that Ralph’s could break my cycle of organic dining failures.
Atmosphere: The decor was simple and tasteful. Linens on the tables, live piano music by our friend Betsy, and a dimly lit/casual ambiance. A place casual enough for a first date, yet upscale enough for an anniversary.Service: Our waitress was attentive, not overly intrusive, and very helpful with our selections.
Food/Drink: The wine and beer menu featured regional vineyard and microbrew offerings. Wine sounded good, but the waitress suggested the Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat Ale, which was delicious.
When it was time to order, Tom ordered the pork tenderloin like any good Iowan, and the wife fulfilled her usual order of ______ chicken by selecting the cordon bleu.
I selected one of my favorite things in the world, osso bucco. Ralph’s offering was venison on top of a bed of fettuccine. At it’s best, osso bucco is a fall off the bone tender shank (usually beef/veal, lamb, or game) often braised for hours in a beautiful broth of red wine, herbs, garlic and shallots.
The caraway-rye dinner rolls would have been sublime had they been warm… Or fresh. After the par for the course salad of organic greens, it was show time.
When the waitress arrived, the the plate was gorgeous. Two beautiful venison shanks on top of fettuccine swimming in jus or the braising liquid. This was the peak of the dinner.
Trouble seemed to be brewing from the word go, or should I say the word “Osseo Bucco”. The butchering of the spelling of the dish was foreshadowing the butchering that the kitchen did to this beautiful shank of organically raised venison.
Being venison, I was prepared that the meat would be slightly less tender than usual osso bucco due to the leanness of the deer, but by no means was I prepared for the hack job I would have to perform on the hunk of deer leg placed in front of me. Immediately I gathered that shank was braised no where near the time required and that I had made the error of ordering the dish on the menu rather than if it were a special. Translation- this shank was not braised today and has likely been sitting in a low boy refrigerator, dunked in boiling water, and tossed onto my plate.
What I had assumed to be the braising liquid was nothing more than the (also) flavorless runoff from the meat as it was unceremoniously plucked from the heat and left to rest on the pile of sauce-less pasta.
Tough. Flavorless. All looks and no substance. Qualities often found in ex-girlfriends, but definitely should NOT be qualities in your dinner. The night could have been a complete wash, but Tom and the Wife enjoyed their food, the service was good, and the piano lady was exquisite (upon request, she even played the peanuts theme!).
Experience: With a good staff and quality menu, this young restaurant (opened May 2010) has the potential to be adequete, but unfortunatly nearly all of the problems are food related.
Returnability: Until marked improvements are made, Ralph’s will not be high on the dining priority list.